Vendors await FAA telecom plan

Officials in charge of the Federal Aviation Administration’s new telecommunications system, intended to save money, have not released a transition plan to major players, contractors said today.

The FAA Telecommunication Infrastructure (FTI) was supposed to reduce operating costs by consolidating multiple telecom networks into one system operated by Harris. In July 2002, the FAA awarded Harris a contract for the potentially multibillion-dollar, 15-year project.

Before FTI, MCI had been supplying some telecom services through the Leased Interfacility National Airspace System Communications System (LINCS). LINCS transmits radar, weather and other data, linking 5,000 locations and carrying more than 20,000 connections, enabling air traffic controllers to communicate with one another and with pilots. In February 2002, the FAA awarded MCI a follow-on LINCS contract to smooth the transition to FTI.

The FAA is currently funding LINCS and FTI. LINCS’ five-year continuation is worth as much as $604 million.

Today, MCI officials, said FAA officials have not provided MCI with a changeover plan, despite a formal letter from MCI and an offer to put a plan in place, MCI spokeswoman Natasha Haubold said.

MCI is waiting for guidance from FAA officials before moving ahead to prevent disruptions on a “network so mission-critical," she added.

“We have been providing services on the LINCS project for more than 13 years. We take that very, very seriously,” Haubold said. “Our main concern is to make sure that the network operates at 99.999 percent reliability, to ensure national security and public safety.”

In April, FAA officials asked Mitre, a nonprofit research firm, to conduct an independent assessment of transition risks. The report is due this month.

In May, the Transportation Department's assistant inspector general for aviation and special program audits issued a report criticizing the FAA for the growing costs that are counterproductive to FTI's money-saving.

FAA reset the baseline for FTI in December 2004. The report states that as a result, program costs have increased from $1.9 billion to $2.4 billion, “the bulk of which -- $2.1 billion -- will be funded from the operations account.”

“There are a number of issues that could affect its cost and schedule,” the assistant IG added. “For example, FAA has dramatically increased the number of sites scheduled to receive FTI from 1,374 to 4,463, and some sites are experiencing delays implementing FTI.”

The FAA had originally planned to transfer about 450 circuits to FTI by the end of last November, but the agency changed only about 200 circuits — less than half its target.

“We note that FAA has already reduced FTI cost savings by $30 million, due to delays implementing FTI,” the report states.

FAA officials said the FTI program is behind schedule by about four months, but a recovery plan shows them accomplishing monthly production goals starting in August. They will now add roughly 10 percent more sites each month to meet their objectives.

“That is a manageable number," said Tammy Jones, an FAA spokeswoman. "We underestimated the start-to-end time for each site.” She added that the work involved many tasks such as defining requirements, telecommunications engineering and placing orders with local telecommunications providers.

The recovery plan still has to be vetted by FAA managers, so Jones could not give details on the number of sites per month.

Currently, the project is estimated to end in December 2007, she said.

Telecom experts said a number of factors have influenced the hold-up.

Warren Suss, president of federal network/IT consulting firm Suss Consulting, said, “It’s a complex issue about where to point the finger,” adding that a clearer picture should emerge once the Mitre study is published. “They certainly are behind in the schedule, significantly in terms of the numbers of circuits and sites that have actually been transitioned.”

“One thing clear is that transitions are always difficult,” he added.

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